PV solar farm ordinance moves to Champaign County Board

URBANA—The Champaign County Environmental Land Use Committee passed an ordinance regulating Photovoltaic solar farms in Champaign County on Aug. 9 in a 4-0 vote, sending it to the Champaign County Board for review on August 23.  The ordinance was amended to include requiring a letter of credit covering the costs of decommissioning farms no longer in use.

Photovoltaic solar energy produces power by the use of cells that generate electricity when struck by light.  The solar installation uses moving panels to catch the light and a mechanical inverter to convert the light to energy for use on the power grid.

Similar to a wind farm, establishment of a PV solar farm would require a special permit from the Champaign County Board that is only allowed in AG-1 and AG-2 agricultural zoning districts.

The ELUC board members sent the ordinance to the County Board with the direction to keep it off the consent list on the agenda, assuring there will be further discussion at the board meeting on ordinance provisions.  “This is a big enough step for the county that it needs to come before the board for discussion,” said Chairman Aaron Esry.  “We want to keep it off the consent list for now.”

Some county residents are concerned that the noise levels from the equipment in the PV farms will negatively affect quality of living in the area.  Previously, hours of testimony for and against the establishment of large PV solar farms was heard by both the Zoning Board of Appeals and ELUC.

No changes were made in the ordinance to the setback limits or the noise limits for PV solar installations, despite testimony from and Tiffany  McElroy-Smetzer of St. Joseph and Ted Hartke of Sidney, where the largest proposed solar farm project is slated to be built.

Hartke pointed out to the committee members that there should be some consideration when the noise from the solar panel operations began, and what effect that would have on the farm’s neighbors.  “They start making 45 decibels of noise at 6 a.m. when the sun rises,” he said.  “I don’t want to be woken up every day with that amount of noise.” His recommendation is that the developer be held to a limit of 30 decibels of sound at night, and 35 decibels during the day to assure the well being of residents over the long term.  Hartke explained that fixing the noise problem would not be that expensive if all that needed to be done was to put wood framing around the solar converters.  “It’s 100 percent predictable and 100 percent fixable,” he testified.

McElroy-Smetzer told the board that although it might not be possible to regulate the sound, muffling the noise would be an efficient solution.  “There are better ways to deal with this than a setback,” she said.

ELUC Vice-President Patti Petri wanted to take a wait and see attitude.   “I went out to the UofI solar farm, and it was noisy,” she said.   “I walked into the surrounding fields to see how far I had to go to not hear noise. I am concerned the distance for the setbacks isn’t sufficient.  It’s important to do testing a year after the farms are established.  We just don’t know how it is now.”   Her concerns were not enough to deter her from voting to pass the ordinance as presented, however.

Ted Hartke was not pleased.  “I am very disappointed in their decision to pass the ordinance with no noise limit changes,” he said.  “It will be just another social experiment that will end up hurting families.”  

So far, the county has received seven applications for solar farms, officials said.

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